Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 184

On October 3, 1999, Russia introduced troops into Chechnya. Officially, Moscow gave two reasons for its military operation–the invasion by fighters lead by Shamil Basaev and Khattab into Dagestan, and the destruction of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in the autumn of 1999, which Moscow, without proof, blamed on Chechen terrorists. Many independent experts, however, believed that the Kremlin needed a war in order to raise the approval rating of Vladimir Putin, the then little-known prime minister whom Boris Yeltsin had selected as his successor. A “small victorious war” was seen as way to secure a brilliant victory in the presidential election. If this theory is true, then the Kremlin’s program was carried out brilliantly. During the first months of the operation, the Russian army moved quickly and victoriously, allowing Putin to show Russians that with a tough leader Russia could again prove its might to the world and that the shameful defeat in the 1994-1996 operation in Chechnya had been due to Yeltsin’s weakness. Even the lengthy battle for Djohar [Grozny] did not shake Russians’ faith in Putin, given that in the end the Chechen capital was taken and the notorious field commander Shamil Basaev lost a foot while fleeing the capital through a mine field. On the eve of Russia’s presidential elections in March, Putin’s rating was so high that no political observer believed he could lose.

Following the elections, however, there was a turning point in the Chechen military campaign. While Russian troops had occupied virtually the entire republic, the Chechen separatist forces began a guerrilla campaign. The Russian forces had a particularly difficult time in the mountainous regions of southern Chechnya. As was the case during the earlier Chechen war, there was not one Russian military unit sufficiently trained or supplied to fight in the mountains. In addition, it is clear that it made sense for the Russian forces to move into the mountains. The experience of the previous war showed that it was practically impossible to deal with Chechen guerrillas operating in the mountains. It would have been far more effective to force the guerrillas into the mountains, where they would have had problems receiving food and weapons supplies, and to prevent them from returning to the lowlands. It should be noted that when Moscow began its military campaign, it had no detailed plan to move troops so far into the republic. One popular idea at the beginning of the military campaign was to create a “model” Chechnya in the northern part of the republic which, with the help of large-scale funding, could be used to convince those Chechens living in rebel-controlled areas, who had not received salaries or pensions for months, that it was to their benefit to remain within the Russian Federation. In the end, the Kremlin decided to move into the mountains in order to achieve a total victory.

But the deaths of OMON special forces from Moscow Oblast, along with the rebels’ successful attacks on Russian troop columns in the mountains virtually every day, showed that the Kremlin had a long way to go to achieve a real victory. Sensing that defeat was in the air, the Russian forces tried to destroy the rebels before the appearance of spring foliage, which would sharply increase the effectiveness of the rebels’ guerrilla actions. The Russian troops, however, failed to reach this goal. In addition, the Russian army began to encounter another serious problem. In the early months of the military campaign, the federal forces paid very high salaries by Russian military standards–around US$30 a day. This created a competition among those wanting to fight in Chechnya, which meant that fully professional warriors joined the federal forces. The Monitor’s correspondent can attest to the fact that during the first months of the current military campaign, the Russian forces fought much more effectively than those in the previous military campaign, during which salaries were not so high. However, it soon became clear that Moscow was unable to pay such high salaries for a protracted period, and contract soldiers even began to protest mounting salary arrears. If Moscow is unable to finance its troops properly, then, as was the case in the 1994-1996 military campaign, they will be easily bribed by the rebels and be less interested in fighting effectively than enriching themselves using criminal methods, including looting. Meanwhile, Isa Munaev, a rebel field commander who had been the military commander of Chechnya in the government of President Aslan Maskhadov. When the current war began, Munaev was in charge of the Chechen capital’s defense. More recently, he commanded several guerrilla units in the capital. Munaev was killed when he pulled a pistol on Russian OMON troops who were attempting to check his documents. On his person was found a small bomb and a radio receiver tuned to the local police frequency (Kommersant, October 3).